Shinnyo‑en Frequently Asked Questions
Explore here a set of answers to some of the questions that are most frequently asked, and explanations of many of the Japanese and Buddhist terms most commonly used at Shinnyo‑en.
What makes Shinnyo‑en different from other forms of Buddhism?
Shinnyo‑en is a Buddhist denomination that has adapted practices specifically for laypeople to use in their everyday lives. The Shinnyo‑en tradition focuses on cultivating an awareness of the great value and potential for good in all people, including oneself. Based on understanding this potential, Shinnyo Buddhists strive to see every moment as an opportunity for engaging in wise and compassionate actions that embody enlightenment in their lives. Shinnyo‑en also uses a unique interpersonal form of meditation that helps members with this practice.
What does the name “Shinnyo‑en” mean?
Shinnyo is a Japanese word that refers to our innate potential for awakening. The name “Shinnyo‑en” brings together the Japanese characters for shinnyo (真如) and “en” or “borderless garden” (苑). The name Shinnyo‑en calls to mind the image of a “boundless garden where everyone can cultivate their innate goodness,” and is used to refer to the community in which we practice to awaken to that truth.
What are the principal beliefs in Shinnyo‑en?
Shinnyo‑en teaches that every person has a natural goodness in the form of wisdom and loving compassion. This inspires people to unleash their potential for enlightenment in our everyday lives. Shinnyo‑en also promotes a spiritual practice that is not limited to silent meditation on a cushion. We take our practice out into the world in our day-to-day relationships and activities.
How was Shinnyo‑en founded?
Shinnyo‑en was founded by Shinjo Ito and his wife Tomoji in 1936. Shinjo, an aeronautical engineer at the time, and Tomoji had gained a reputation as skilled spiritual practitioners by counseling people who would visit their home seeking help with their personal problems. Wanting to more effectively serve the spiritual needs of their community in pre-war Tokyo, Shinjo and Tomoji decided to fully dedicate themselves to the Buddhist path. Shinjo trained as a Buddhist priest, attained the rank of master, and founded the Shinnyo tradition as a practical path to enlightenment that ordinary people of all spiritual backgrounds could work at in their daily lives.
Who is Her Holiness Shinso Ito?
Her Holiness Shinso Ito is the current spiritual head of the Shinnyo tradition. Her Holiness is carrying on the work of the founders by establishing a spiritual path in innovative ways that are accessible to people of all spiritual backgrounds. Her Holiness Shinso teaches an engaged practice that inspires people to see their daily lives as opportunities to take steps towards enlightenment and express the inner goodness that they discover through their interactions with others.
What are all the images I see at Shinnyo‑en temples and centers?
Visitors to Shinnyo‑en temples will see a reclining Buddha image sculpted by the founder Shinjo Ito that represents the awakening which is inherent in all of us. One will also see visual representations of the Shinnyo‑en founders, Shinjo and Tomoji Ito, and their two deceased sons who were important to the establishment of practices of Shinnyo‑en. The images of the founders and their sons serve as a reminder that awakened masters are not far removed from us–they could be anyone, no matter how ordinary they may appear. Images familiar to Japanese Buddhism are also displayed in Shinnyo‑en.
Do people outside of Japan practice Shinnyo‑en?
Shinnyo‑en is a global practice with an international community of roughly one million members. Click here for a map of events that Shinnyo‑en has held around the world.
How can I learn more about Shinnyo‑en?
If you want to learn more, please visit the “About Shinnyo‑en” page of this website, where you can learn about our story, our practices, our current head teacher, Her Holiness Shinso Ito, and about the types of community outreach Shinnyo‑en undertakes in the world.
Lantern Floating Ceremonies
What is a Shinnyo Lantern Floating?
Floating lanterns on water is a long-held tradition in East Asia to honor and remember lost loved ones. In Shinnyo‑en, we use this tradition as an opportunity to come together in community to reflect on the inherent goodness of those who’ve made us who we are, to practice remembrance and gratitude for all they’ve done for us, and to establish a heartfelt intention to pass the same goodness on to others.
Shinnyo‑en has organized lantern floatings in Japan, Hawaii, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, New York, Germany, and Singapore. These events are open to the public and have been attended and enjoyed by thousands of people. These events have not been held in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic but we look forward to resuming them as soon as it is safe to do so. You can view videos about lantern floatings held by Shinnyo‑en here.
What is Meditation and what is it for?
Meditation can be practiced in both structured and unstructured ways. Structured sesshin meditation—the meditation practice unique to Shinnyo‑en—is typically undertaken in a group setting. Trainees take part in a guided form of meditation where words of instruction are personalized by a spiritual guide.
Meditation is a core practice in Buddhism and is integral to spiritual growth and awareness. In calming the mind through meditation, we attempt to remove the tensions that prevent us from gaining new insight into ourselves and our experiences. Meditation is essential to counteracting the ingrained tendencies and perceptions that prevent us from seeing reality objectively and living joyful lives.
Masters Shinjo and Tomoji understood that by reflecting positively on what we encounter, we can gradually transform our lives. The meditative practice they developed at Shinnyo‑en creates a connection between our individual experiences and the act of sitting in meditation.
Does one need to have a teacher/guide to practice Shinnyo‑en?
It is not necessary to have a teacher or spiritual guide to benefit from Shinnyo‑en. Her Holiness Shinso, who leads the Shinnyo‑en community, regularly gives teachings to broad public audiences who benefit from hearing and reflecting on her ideas. However, if you are considering a more dedicated practice, it is essential to have a knowledgeable and capable teacher. Buddhism is an inherently social spiritual tradition: we encourage learning its system of practices under the guidance of a qualified teacher and practice it with others in a community. We invite you to first explore our website, and if you would like to learn more, please join our email list.
Glossary of Terms
A Sanskrit word that refers to a person who pursues enlightenment to attain lasting peace for others and themselves. A bodhisattva forgoes entry into the final peace of enlightenment to reappear in the cycle of lives and help others for as long as needed. The selfless practices of the bodhisattva, characterized by wisdom, great compassion, and loving kindness, are the distinguishing features of Mahayana Buddhism.
A Sanskrit word that means “awakened one.” It is used to describe a person who has attained enlightenment and has permanently transcended the endless cycle of suffering. When capitalized, it refers to the historical Buddha who lived in India in the 5th or 6th century BC. When used without capitalization, it refers to anyone who has reached enlightenment.
The potential for enlightenment that exists naturally within all beings. Expressions of buddha nature can be glimpsed in an ordinary person’s selfless thoughts, words, and acts of loving kindness and compassion. When enlightened, this nature becomes fully revealed and is expressed through continued selfless acts for all beings.
Dharma has two meanings. Its first meaning is the truth that produces inner peace that the Buddha was able to realize in his lifetime. This Dharma leads to freedom from the causes of suffering. The second meaning of Dharma is the teachings that can lead other people to realize this truth and peace. These are the teachings of the Buddha, which can be in the form of stories, songs, paintings, poems, and more. In explaining these two meanings, the Buddha likened his teachings to a raft used to cross a raging river, and the final inner peace of enlightenment to the safety of the other shore.
Esoteric Buddhism refers to special teachings and practices that rapidly advance the practitioner towards enlightenment. “Esoteric” refers to the restricted nature of these practices. People must be initiated into Esoteric Buddhism by a qualified master and it should be practiced privately under their guidance. Esoteric also describes the “hidden” or “mystical” spiritual knowledge that these practices reveal. The master-disciple relationship is one of the distinguishing features of Esoteric Buddhism. Initiation tends to only be pursued by priests within Shinnyo‑en, for whom initiation is a requisite for carrying out certain religious rites. It is not necessary for members to receive initiation in order to participate in and benefit from practices at Shinnyo‑en.
Karma is a Sanskrit word that refers to the thoughts, words, and actions that lead to the circumstances of a person’s life. These circumstances include the nature of their birth, family, gender, nationality, social conditions, and their day-to-day experiences. This web of causes and effects links all living beings and makes them subject to waves of gain and loss, suffering and happiness, and joy and grief. Although past actions have determined our current life circumstances, we can change our conditions by developing a keen awareness of karma–cultivating virtuous acts and eliminating non-virtuous ones. These are core elements of all Buddhist practice.
Lineage refers to the unbroken line of teachers and disciples through which the Dharma has been passed down from the time of the historical Buddha. Within the Buddhist community, a lineage is maintained by the continuous observance of religious vows since the time of the Buddha. Teachers within a lineage in Buddhism, including temple founders, are often treated with great respect and reverence.
A Sanskrit word that means “great vehicle” and refers to the system of teachings and practice for bodhisattvas. Mahayana is focused on a practice of great compassion–selflessly foregoing the final peace of enlightenment to reappear in the cycle of lives and help others. It is distinguished from the “lesser vehicle,” which emphasizes getting to the peace of enlightenment as soon as possible. Mahayana Buddhism is known for its extensive variety of practices. There is something for everyone–from lay people just starting on their Buddhist path to the most advanced practitioners of Esoteric Buddhism.
Merit refers to the potential of thoughts, words, and actions (karma) that produce pleasant and beneficial results; it links good acts to happy experiences. Although all beings create merit and experience its results, they typically do so unconsciously. Through the practice of virtue, Buddhists intentionally accumulate stores of merit to achieve enlightenment. An essential practice of Mahayana Buddhism is wishing to transfer one’s own merit to others to ensure their happiness and relieve their suffering.
A Sanskrit word that means “extinguished,” nirvana refers to a buddha’s state of enlightenment in which all suffering and its causes have been eliminated. In a state of nirvana, all good qualities associated with compassion and understanding reality are fully manifest. It is the ultimate goal of spiritual practice for all Buddhists.
A Sanskrit word that means “community” and can refer to a specific Buddhist community or to the community of Buddhists in general. In its most common usage, sangha refers to a group of people who maintain Buddhist vows, whether lay or monastic, and share practices such as renewing vows, confessing wrongdoing, reciting prayers, and studying the Buddha’s teachings.
A Japanese word that denotes an “interaction or exchange of hearts and minds,” sesshin is a form of meditative practice unique to Shinnyo‑en. It can be practiced in both structured and unstructured ways. Structured sesshin is typically undertaken in a group setting. Trainees take part in a guided form of meditation where words of instruction are personalized. Unstructured sesshin refers to applying guidance from structured sesshin in your daily life.
A Japanese word that refers to the awakening attained by the Buddha that can be felt, experienced, and shared with others. Her Holiness Shinso, the head of Shinnyo‑en, teaches that shinnyo consists of the wisdom and loving compassion that pervades the universe and is also inherent within us. Often this term is used interchangeably with buddhahood or buddha nature.
There are three practices that all members of Shinnyo‑en observe: service (gohoshi), joyous giving (okangi), and spiritual care (otasuke). “Service” means giving one’s time and energy to others in selfless ways; “joyous giving” means generously sharing what one has with one’s community, in the form of charitable donations or volunteering to help those in need; and “spiritual care” means to put aside judgment of others and offer genuine positive regard so that others may recognize and express their own inner goodness. Members of Shinnyo are encouraged to pursue these practices with genuine joy and gratitude.